Writing instructor Nancy Slonim Aronie, an occasional commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered,” is celebrating the 25th anniversary of her Chilmark Writing Workshop. For her, the workshop is part therapy and part writing, as it has helped her deal with her late son, who struggled with diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Q. How has the workshop changed in 25 years?
A. I think it hasn’t changed much except I’ve gotten better. I didn’t really know how to facilitate a group. One rule still applies: When someone finishes reading, we tell them what we loved about the writing. The first group I was in was a disaster. They all criticized each other off the page. They got to me, and I was crushed. I got a job as an editor and got fired on Friday. I went home with my tail between my legs, totally miserable and frightened, and I wrote the best thing I’ve ever written. I put an ad in the paper for a workshop in my home. About 12 people signed up. The same thing happened, and I did not know how to stop it. Nobody said anything positive. I saw that the faces got pinched, the shoulders went up and the writing got generic, very safe. At the end of that workshop, a normal person would’ve quit, but I’m not a normal person. I learned that creativity requires safety. You will be safe here. And I see people taking chances, writing that’s so powerful. People fall in love with each other. It took a long time for this to catch on. This is the first summer, in preregistration, all the spots were filled.
Q. Is that positivity what sets the program apart?
A. That’s what people tell me. People say, “I was terrified, I was torn apart at the last workshop I went to. Now I’m thrilled, juiced, energized, inspired.” I get e-mails from people all the time: “This changed my life.” People are writing about stuff they’ve never told anyone, because they feel safe. That’s what it’s about. Not big words or your intelligence or sounding like a writer. It’s being real, being themselves.
Q. How much of what you do is writing, and how much is therapy?
A. I’m not qualified to do therapy, but it’s therapeutic to write the truth, to get this stuff out of yourself onto the page. It’s personal narrative, and if it’s going to work, you’ve got to get down deep. Without saying, “OK, I’m teaching now,” I throw in everything I know about writing. Listen to your ear. Read out loud and you will hear. As soon as you treat yourself as you treat your best friend, you’ll be the best editor for your stuff. You will hear when the word “purple” is too guttural and you need “lavender.” And you’ll know. You get better. It’s a practice.
Q. The appeal of coming to the Vineyard is a huge part of the workshop’s success, isn’t it?
A. That helps. I think people make it a vacation. And their husbands wander around waiting for them [laughs]. More men are taking the class, actually. A lot of women get their husbands, brothers, sons to take it. People need to be listened to.
Q. Your late son, Dan, is a huge part of your story.
A. Dan got diabetes when he was nine months old. At 22 he got MS. By 25, he was in a wheelchair. By 27, his hands were tremoring. He had brain surgery to try to stop it, and that slurred his speech. At 29, he got a urinary tract infection that went to his aortic valve, and he had open-heart surgery. He was like Job. We bought him a house in Vineyard Haven. He needed full-time care, and we were there all the time. He had a huge ego; he was an acting major at Bard. So I said, “Hey Dan, do you want to make a film? That way we can track this [expletive] disease.’’ And it worked. He played to the camera. He absolutely loved it. We had no goal, no documentary planned. [“A Certain Kind of Beauty” eventually screened across the country at major film festivals.] We showed it on the Vineyard to 500 high school students, and they gave him a standing ovation. One girl said, “When I woke up, my biggest problem was my iPod was broken. You are my hero.” Another student said, “My father has MS, and I’ve been completely unsympathetic to him. I had no idea. You’ve given me a huge education.” All the kids went onstage and fell into his lap. He just bloomed. This disease gave him his identity, and being with him became an honor.James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.